Bjorn Simmons is the managing partner and co-founder for Venture Noire, whose mission is to accelerate diverse businesses in the digital economy. They focus on providing curriculum, mentorship and access to capital to high potential diverse entrepreneurs. Before co-founding Venture Noire, he also co-founded the venture-backed startup Wyzerr. Simmons’s personal mission is to eliminate innovation desserts around the world by building inclusive ecosystems for ALL entrepreneurs, regardless of their demography and geography, to thrive and generate wealth.
00:08 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality and what those values mean in business education and your life today. I have with me today, Bjorn Simmons, the managing partner of Venture Noire. Bjorn has an extensive experience in entrepreneurship in many different ways. He was the Chief Strategy Officer of a company for six years that basically provided insights to company building using artificial intelligence solution and market research, and it was sold. And he's also been involved with accelerators and incubators, and he is an alum. So Bjorn, it's good to have you.
01:11 Bjorn Simmons: It's great to be here, Dean. Thank you so much for having me.
01:14 Matt Waller: So Bjorn, I know that Venture Noire is about building access to community and capital for underrepresented founders. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
01:27 Bjorn Simmons: Absolutely. So we started Venture Noire to really be a source of resources for entrepreneurs of color and diverse entrepreneurs. Over time, what we found is that in many communities and entrepreneurial ecosystems, entrepreneurs of color do not have a destination or a hub or a go-to place where they can get the support they need in regards to the access to curriculum or education, access to mentors, access to space, and access to capital. And so in recognizing that problem, we sought out to pilot Venture Noire to identify what solutions we can build in partnership with others that can fit the mold and really help increase access and opportunities for entrepreneurs of color.
02:26 Matt Waller: So Bjorn, you have certainly the right background to be able to do something like this. Would you tell us about some of your personal experiences as an entrepreneur?
02:38 Bjorn Simmons: So I've been a entrepreneur for most of my professional career. I actually started my first company there at the University of Arkansas doing creative marketing services from digital advertising to social media planning to even throwing events while in school. I really was trying to just carve out a space in the creative digital space, digital marketing space, and I launched my first company then. And over time, just consistently found opportunities to grow my skill set, and in 2014, was introduced to the world of startups and innovation, where I really launched my first startup in partnership with my co-founders, and that was Wiser. And Wiser gave me the experience on a few of the high growth potential companies, leveraging innovation, studying artificial intelligence, studying machine learning. Understanding, even as a young 24, 25-year-old entrepreneur, how to do deals with corporations like Proctor and Gamble, Kroger, just to name a few, Walmart, and going from just a pilot to getting bigger contracts and increasing your annual revenue, recurring revenue, to growing your team to many facets of business. It was a crash course in entrepreneurship in a fast environment. That journey kicked off in 2014. Even during my time at Wiser, we went through a number of accelerator programs all over the country.
04:21 Bjorn Simmons: We started off in StartFast, New York, in Syracuse, New York and ended up at the Brandery in Cincinnati, where we got a ton of experience in the startup city ecosystem and learned a lot about ecosystem, developing the value of community around entrepreneurship and how that really increases your chances of success. There, we found our largest customers, and then we also raised capital, but we had support from Northern Kentucky, which is just across the bridge from Cincinnati. And again, we really grew from a company of three founders to 15 in less than a year, honestly. And again, this crash course accelerated a startup environment. So I really appreciate the journey. I love where things are going as far as new mainstream business and how it's being influenced by the accelerated startup side of business.
05:24 Bjorn Simmons: And now with everything being required to go digital, a lot of those practices that I learned in the startup world are very applicable to mainstream business and even the corporate environment, when you think about corporate innovation and how problem solving is at the core of business building now. And essentially, that's what startups are, right? They're innovative solutions to big problems and so that experience gave me a lot. I think it increased my leadership capacity and it allowed me to move into other spaces, working in the venture capital space and now, as an entrepreneur ecosystem builder with organizations like Venture Noire.
06:04 Matt Waller: So Bjorn, what would you say are the biggest opportunities and challenges you've faced, and really building community and capital for underrepresented founders going forward?
06:20 Bjorn Simmons: That's a quite great question, Dean. There are a number of challenges that we, that work on the inclusive innovation space have study. The number one that everybody knows or should know is the venture capital side, less than 2%, between 1% and 2% of all venture capital is invested into African-American entrepreneurs. And less than 6% into women and less than 2% as well into Hispanic led companies. And so, these are hard numbers that many ecosystem builders are working against, but there are many facets to how you fix that. And those include, increasing the number of fund managers that are of color, because their representation on the management side will ultimately impact the investments into more founders of color, then leadership representation will be more welcome and inviting to people that look like them and people that they can relate to and it'd be easier to find those companies. We hear all the time in the venture capital space that, "We can't find the talent. We can't find the talent." And oftentimes, that's just a matter of not knowing or not being in that circle or in that environment. The venture capital space is relatively small. We use relationship based industry.
07:48 Bjorn Simmons: And so, you need more fund managers of color in order to impact the investment into those companies. And so, that's definitely a big one. As I've been back in Arkansas, I've learned some other challenges that they face here. We did a study in the end of 2019, it's around Central Arkansas, and asked the question, "Where do you go to get support for your business?" And this was to primarily African-American entrepreneurs. And at that time, their response was, they don't have one. And though there are infrastructure in place like Chambers, like the tech park, that community did not feel like they had a resource specifically afforded them a special vehicle that they can trust, where they can go, where they can find a community, where they can get the support they need in order to be successful. And so, having proper infrastructure and intentional infrastructure for diverse companies and diverse entrepreneurs is a challenge and it's a need, and the community is essential to the success of entrepreneurs. So that's two. And then third, I would say more corporate engagement and institutional engagement. Looking at the supply diversity of roles in corporation as well as in government institutions, big box institutions.
09:11 Bjorn Simmons: Because I think the chief diversity officer is one of the most important roles that you can have in any institution or any corporation, because that person is your gateway to diversifying talent, diversifying your vendors, diversifying through creativity, innovative solutions and community, and even your sales and revenue, generating revenue. And especially, when that leadership is resourced properly with the capacity as well as budget to do what they need to do effectively. We're in an interesting time right now, we need more diverse leaders. I think the days of having just one leader to speak on everybody's behalf is gone. So you need a multifaceted leadership across the board that's intentional about diversity. So that corporate engagement and that institutional engagement, intentional engagement is super important and critical to the success, especially of regional entrepreneurs, like in a place like Arkansas or anywhere, making sure that those leaders are engaged with the entrepreneurial community. They're doing business with them, they're being mentors, they're providing the knowledge and spending and investing and even buying companies. Because that's what you wanna see on a journey, on entrepreneurial journey. You wanna see that liquidity event ultimately. And so we need those different pieces to all work together, the community, the corporations, and the capital.
10:31 Matt Waller: Bjorn, of course, you and I have stayed in contact over the years. But recently, we met up in Bentonville. I thought, it's hard to believe you graduated less than 10 years ago. Given how much you've accomplished and just listening to you talk even now, I think back to your involvement in the Walton College. You were not a student who sat back and just took classes. I know you were the president of a mentoring organization. You were involved in several professional organizations for students. You were on the Dean's Student Advisory Board, you were in Leadership Walton and the Center for Retailing Excellence and many other things. So you came out of high school running. And then soon after you graduated, of course, I know you went to work in marketing, but you quickly got involved in entrepreneurship.
11:39 Bjorn Simmons: Yeah, and politics too. [chuckle]
11:44 Matt Waller: And politics, yeah. And now, of course, you've actually had a company, it's been sold. So I wonder on the one hand, what you're doing in terms of trying to help underrepresented founders succeed in entrepreneurship and in their businesses, but I think about you as an example. When I think about how do we raise up leaders like you, even before they're out, while they're here in the college. So what advice would you give to undergraduates, especially underrepresented groups that are in the Walton College right now?
12:21 Bjorn Simmons: Well, first off again, Dean, thank you, you've brought back some memories from some of the things I was involved with on campus. But the University of Arkansas afforded me a ton of opportunities to get engaged. And I'll start with saying that I'm one that learns by experience. And I still do, I learn by experience. I can read a book all day and I'll digest it, but I love the practicum of everything. So when it came to wanting to be seen or recognized as a leader on campus, especially at U of A, I wanted to get involved in leadership roles quickly, and I saw the need to do that. The University is a big campus, but it's small for the diverse students. I say, "We went to University of Arkansas, but we got a private school experience," because you're talking about 2000 students of color in a school of 30,000. And there's levels of segregation between that, but the challenge that comes with that for a student like myself who wasn't an athlete, who wasn't Greek, was that you had to break through the mold. You had to stand out as well as from your counterparts, your White counterparts on campus. So how do I stand out and get a job, not just a regular job like everybody else but the job that I really wanna do? How do I get into roles on campus that allowed me to create who I am and not just be a stereotypical student?
14:00 Bjorn Simmons: So I learn by experience, so I got involved in a lot. The multi-cultural center, funny enough, had such a huge impact on me, and it still does. Even the work that I'm doing now in inclusive innovation is a reflection of me spending four years working in the multi-cultural center at the University of Arkansas. That was my work study program for four years, and that's how I got involved in Connections and became the president there for two years, and I stayed there and I loved that place, that was my hub, that was my destination, my sanctuary, as well as Dr. Barbara Lofton's office at the Walton College. And so the advice, what I give students is make sure you're writing your own story. There are a ton of opportunities out there and that they will not be given to you, but you can create your own path. You don't have to go on a traditional route in order to find success. You can, and the Walton College, I mean the University of Arkansas does a great job to give you a pathway to getting a corporate job, living in Ozark, Arkansas, buying a house, getting a dog, getting married and raising a family.
15:05 Bjorn Simmons: You can live that bubble, but you can also paint your own picture. You can really paint your own picture, and it takes you and your own ambition in order to do that and to do that well. And from the university's perspective, I think we should cultivate that more. How do you create more individual special stories of a student like myself, who was a first-generation college student that did come from... Wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but worked my way up to find and fight for leadership positions that gave me the opportunity to travel. They gave me the opportunity to work alongside Deans and leadership at the University, who are now my colleagues, and I get to actually do business with them. And so I would just challenge students like to really... When you get to college, don't get so caught up in the traditional story of what you're supposed to do. Find the opportunities to chart your own path, and I think the university could do a great job in supporting and cultivating that.
16:07 Matt Waller: Well, Bjorn, we're really proud of you and what you've accomplished and what you're doing now. It's so important for our community. And I appreciate you staying engaged with us, and I look forward to seeing you have huge successes in helping underrepresented founders succeed in their businesses. So thank you for what you're doing.
16:33 Bjorn Simmons: Thank you, Dean. I really appreciate it and I thank you for all that you're doing, too, in being intentional in moving the needle. It's a long path to chart, but you're moving the needle, and that's really, really important work. It's a brick by brick process, Dean, so thank you for all that you do as well.
16:53 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEpic Podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C Podcast. And now, be epic.